I can’t complain, but sometimes I still do…—from “Life’s Been Good” by Joe Walsh
Every once in a while, I find myself casting a backward glance at the topics I’ve covered for this column. Usually it’s to ensure that I’m not about to repeat myself. But a purely nostalgic trip I made through the archives this past week made me wonder if some objective reader might form the dubious conclusion that I’ve painted a rather dark picture of our profession over the years. A retrospective perusal I made of a handful of original articles seemed to bear this out: vivid descriptions of the torturously long hours, brutal deadlines, vague documents, constant scrutiny, chaotic market conditions, and unscrupulous competitors comprise a professional environment that would surely reduce even the sturdiest of bidmeisters to whimpering, neurotic, borderline-suicidal insomniacs.
But then, I could be making unintended inferences. After all, when it comes to my accumulated writings, I am my own worst critic. And so, compelled by my acknowledged struggles with impartiality, I went out to my fellow bidmeisters, scattered about the country, for some objective input on this issue as to whether my past expressions might be mistakenly interpreted as disparaging to our creed. I wanted a cross-section sort of sampling, but rather than settle for some cold, pliable set of statistics, I went for indisputable accuracy: anecdotes.
I started out by calling my friend, Ray, senior estimator for a large regional drywaller in Houston. I asked him point-blank if he thought my articles reflected a positive picture of an estimator’s lot in life. “What articles?” was how he responded at first. A real kidder, that Ray. When I went on to explain that I was trying to promote our vocation by pointing out the inherent benefits like job security, for example, he laughed and immediately launched into a tale involving an employer from Albuquerque with whom we had both dealt, years before.
“I recall during a serious dry spell that I’d gone some three months or so without an award when old Dale called me into his office to discuss ‘return on investment,’ or the lack thereof. The termination was as swift and merciless as it was unfounded, and I found myself out on the street without any severance or any prospects. Next morning, the phone rings and it’s old Dale, begging me to come back. Seems he finally got a call back on one of my bigger proposals, and he needed me to sit for a scope meeting that afternoon. I’d have told him to take a hike, but I had no other irons in the fire back then, so I swallowed my pride and returned to work.”
“You see?” I pointed out. “It just goes to show that a good estimator is indispensable.”
“You forgot how it ended, apparently. The award went to a competitor, and Dale fired me again. Point is, an estimator’s position is performance-based, and even though periodic demand may have some impact, any real security is in a guesstimator’s win/loss record—end of story.”
Next, I called Brian, a top estimator out of Ohio. I asked him if he thought my writings adequately expressed the prestige afforded our profession. A long silence ensued.
“Prestige?” he gasped at length. “What prestige?”
“You know, the respect that always appends when we announce our vocation.”
“Jeez, Vince, it’s not like we’re doctors or lawyers—or even Realtors, for God’s sake.”
“Listen, you tell people you’re a construction estimator, just watch their eyes glaze over. They don’t have the vaguest notion about the technical skill involved, how hard we work, or how much we suffer for the public good.”
“Yeah, but Realtors?”
“Let me tell you, I was at a family reunion just the other night when I overheard my mother—my mother, mind you—whispered to some distant relative, a Realtor, that ‘construction estimator’ had something to do with organized crime. That was how she validated it. Hell,” he continued, “my nephew’s a bartender and he enjoys more prestige with my family than I do.”
“Yeah,” I remarked, “but your nephew tells some killer jokes.”
“See? Now that’s what I call prestige.”
Next, I called Chris, a very successful estimator in Florida. I asked him to comment on the superior compensation packages that we bidmeisters typically enjoy.
“Compared to what?” was how he responded. “Have you done any research on this?”
I confessed that research was not my strong suit.
“Well, just Google the ‘Top 25 Earners in the U.S.’ You won’t find construction estimators anywhere in there. But you know who you will find? Human resource managers, that’s who,” he answered himself. “And do you know what HR people do to justify their existence?” he asked rhetorically. “They spend half their time getting people fired who shouldn’t be, and the other half protecting people who probably should!”
“That just seems so wrong,” I lamented.
“And let me tell you who else makes more than estimators do—number crunchers (data managers), pill peddlers (pharmacists) and computer geeks (software designers). Holy guacamole, Vince—my Realtor knocks down more dinero in six months than I do in a year.”
Realtors again. I tried to subtly steer the dialogue in a more positive direction.
“Listen, Chris, I’m trying to present our profession in a more positive light than maybe I have in the past. We need to attract more candidates—more young blood—to our line of work. It’s critical because the demand is reaching crisis proportions. Don’t you think that’s important?”
Next month, Dave from Denver and Bruce from Vegas discuss additional non-pecuniary benefits of being a construction estimator.
Vince Bailey is an estimator/project manager working in the Phoenix area.